Matt Williams: Italy’s youth programme being dismantled just as it bears fruit

Years of graft from Ireland’s Stephen Aboud created a world class elite player pathway

It is highly unlikely that the 19th century French theologian, Charles Loyson, had any interest in the development of modern rugby players. However, his beautiful words perfectly describe the coaching philosophy required to build the long term educational processes that produce high quality rugby players.

“These trees which he plants, and under whose shade he will never sit, he loves them for the sake of his children and his children’s children, who are to sit beneath the shadow of their spreading boughs.”

Planting seeds that, in time, will grow into strong trees is a long term development project. Setting up educational programmes that, over time, create high quality rugby players is what we call long term athletic development.

While the words of Loyson are poetic, the reality of convincing rugby administrators to allocate funds into long term athletic development is exceptionally difficult. In today’s world of instant gratification, any process that requires substantial investment - and by its very definition takes time to provide returns on that investment - is a hard sell.

For the hardy few who believe that long term athletic developmental and educational processes will provide high quality players for their national teams' success, the last round of the Six Nations was a giant vindication.

Last weekend the nations who are long term rugby investors cashed in big time, while those who have underinvested in their youth reaped what they had sown and got smacked.

The facts speak plain. Scotland, Wales and England were defeated in both their senior and under 20s teams. It is no accident that the teams who won last weekend - France, Ireland and Italy - are all long term investors in their schools, youth, academies and underage programs. In the seniors, France won the grand slam while Ireland came a highly creditable second. In the under-20s the tables were reversed, with Ireland winning the Grand Slam and France a close runner-up.

In Cardiff, the end of a long desert crossing by the Italians produced rugby's joyous passion at its best. As long as you were not Welsh, you just had to smile at the quality of the Italians' play and celebrations.

Band aid

The poor performances of the Italian team in the past have always been wrongly laid at the feet of the Italian coaches. The list of victims is long. Pierre Berbizier, John Kirwan, Nick Mallet, Jacques Brunel, Franco Smith and Conor O'Shea have all felt the Italians pain. Changing coaches has been as useless for Italian rugby as placing a band aid on a shark bite.

The truth is that the elite player development system below the Italian national team was non-existent. There was no high quality coaching for the skill development and tactical understanding of Italy’s youth.

Italy’s historic win at Cardiff had its origins in 2016 when Conor O’Shea stepped onto the hard road of being the Italian head coach.

One of Conor's first actions was to recruit another internationally valued Irishman, Stephen Aboud, to develop the Italian elite player pathways. Stephen had established Ireland's first national academy in the 1990s and was the driving rugby intellect behind Ireland's massive improvements in the early 21st century in talent identification, coach education and technical rugby skills.

The system Stephen has now established in Italy is the best under-17 to under-20 programme I have seen anywhere in the world. Its ambition, scale and logistics are far above any other elite age programme in rugby that I am aware of.

Italy now has a stringent talent identification programme to identify the top 130 under-17 and under-18 players across the nation. These players leave home to attend specially selected schools in four regions of Italy for two years. Here the Italian federation supplies academic education, skills development, sports psychology and game tactics. All delivered by high quality coaching under Aboud’s guidance.

Then at under-20s level, the top 35, the cream of the crop, are selected to enter into another year of academic and rugby education at one specialised venue. Italy's elite young rugby players have three years of high intensity, specialised, rugby education. That is the reason the Italians under-20s performances have skyrocketed in recent years. New Zealand, South Africa and Australia can only dream of having a system like this.

The long years of hard work in establishing the Italian academies culminated with this year’s Italian under-20s team defeating England, Scotland and Wales.

The current Italian coach, Kieran Crowley, was also the former coach of Benetton. He has been embedded in Italian rugby for several seasons. His team selections were unjustly described as a youth policy. The reality was that Crowley was selecting inexperienced, but talented young players who had come through a high quality educational process created by Aboud.

Crowley did exactly what Andy Farrell has done. He simply empowered those systems below the national team to provide his Italian team with the talent capable of victory.

Last weekend in Cardiff the years of hard work, pain and frustration were finally put to the sword. I can only imagine the incredulous mix of emotions that Stephen and his staff must have felt as the twin victories in the under-20s and seniors justified all of their Herculean efforts.

Mixed with the pride, there was also heartbreak.

Dismantling

In Cardiff, the recently elected president of Italian rugby, Marzio Innocenti, ran onto the field to celebrate with his team, while at the same time Italian administrators have begun dismantling Aboud’s development programmes that produced the players who won in both games in Wales.

After two lost decades of wandering in the rugby desert, Italian rugby has finally established the best elite player development programming in the world. Just as the long years of work to establish the academy system has begun to bear fruit and quality players are being provided to the national team, the new administration in the Italian federation has decided to dismantle its own great work. All because Italy’s lower division clubs don’t want their players to attend the academies.

The entire situation beggars belief.

I would implore those with influence within the Six Nations to whisper into the appropriate Italian ears (yell if you have to) that if the Italians don't want South Africa to take their place in the championship, the administration must halt the demolition of the academy budgets and the dismantling of the world class programmes that Aboud and his team have worked so diligently to establish. Programmes that are so obviously creating success for Italian rugby.

As it stands, unless the Six Nations organisation can intervene, Conor O’Shea and Stephen Aboud will have seen the seeds they planted sprout, flourish and mature. Only to be forced to witness the unthinkable catastrophe of seeing their great works being chain sawed in their prime by those who would benefit most from the fruits of their labour.